Mike Grier has heard a few slurs and snide comments during his hockey career, but never on the ice, never from an opposing player who might soon be skating in his path, head down, body square, days numbered. The insults have always come from high in the stands, where small minds can hide in big crowds, safely out of reach of even the biggest, toughest kid on the ice.
"Parents would yell things like, 'Hey, kid, you're in the wrong sport; you should be playing basketball,' " Grier says. "But my mom always told me the best way to shut them up was to score a goal."
There are several reasons for Grier's success, but this may be the most important: He listened to Mom. Now a 20-year-old sophomore right wing for Boston University, Grier is the second-leading scorer in the Hockey East league, with 23 goals and 18 assists in 24 games. His scoring ability, imposing size (6'1", 237 pounds) and physical playing style make him a good bet to flourish in the NHL—the St. Louis Blues drafted him in 1993—but he probably will stay in school for at least one more year. While several black players have made it to the NHL, including Buffalo Sabre goalie Grant Fuhr and retired journeyman forward Tony McKegney, Grier could become the league's first American-born-and-trained black offensive star (Fuhr and McKegney are Canadian).
Grier grew up in Holliston, Mass., and learned to skate when he was four. As a member of the Holliston Mites, he scored 227 goals in two seasons and earned a spot in SI's FACES IN THE CROWD (June 18, 1984). Three years later, at age 12, he signed up to play Pop Warner football, but the husky youngster couldn't make the league's 120-pound weight limit. He stuck with hockey.
His father, Bobby, was a running back in college at Iowa and is now the director of player personnel for the New England Patriots. But it wasn't bloodlines or skin color that first made people think Mike had walked into the wrong locker room when he arrived at BU in 1993. It was his body. He looked like the Refrigerator on ice. Hanging from his frame at the time were 255 pounds, most of them softer than the Ben & Jerry's ice cream that has always been his vice.
BU strength and conditioning coach Mike Boyle and hockey coach Jack Parker sent him to the weight room and confiscated the Cherry Garcia. His body fat dropped from 25% to 11%, and while he's still 40 to 50 pounds heavier than most of the opposing players with whom he so frequently collides, he's now solid as a puck. Grier patterns himself after Philadelphia Flyer forward Eric Lindros, a skilled scorer with size, strength and a mean streak as long as the blue line. "Sometimes it seems I get a penalty just for hitting someone too hard," says Grier. "That's why I look forward to playing in the NHL someday."
When, and if, he reaches the league, Grier will be a pioneer of sorts, a trailblazer to be admired and marketed. He expects to enjoy that aspect of the pro game, too. "I love hockey, and I wish more black kids would try to play," he says. "I know if I hadn't been alone all the time growing up, it might have been easier for me."